How will the West be won this season?

So far, the Golden State Warriors and your Denver Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference standings, each team sporting just 14 losses. Both squads are on pace for over 56 wins. Will they reach that benchmark? Will another playoff team challenge the clubhouse leaders in the standings this year?

The second half of the season is a race to the playoffs, and 10 teams currently possess winning records. With some schedule analysis in the background, I’m going to project the final win-loss records of each team sitting currently above .500. That excludes the New Orleans Pelicans (I’m sorry Anthony Davis) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (I’m sorry Karl-Anthony Towns).

With that in mind, who should be expected among the final eight playoff teams in the West this year?

Sacramento Kings

Current Record: 24-24

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 34 (17/17)

Back-to-Backs: 4

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .488 (21st)

Record Prediction: 40-42

The Kings are likely dead in the water in terms of playoff dreams, but a strong run could bring them back into the picture. With just 34 games remaining and finally returning to .500, I have my doubts. With some distinct home and road trips left on the schedule, it’s easy to see where the Kings could start dropping games. Of their 17 road games, 13 come against playoff hopefuls, including on all four of their back-to-backs. They aren’t meant to win those games, but they need 50-50 games to go in their favor. There just aren’t enough 50-50 games left on their schedule for Sacramento to go on the run it will likely need to crack 46 wins. That being said, this season wasn’t about the playoffs for the Kings. It was about growth and identifying key pieces for the rebuild, both of which they have definitely accomplished.

Los Angeles Lakers

Current Record: 25-23

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 34 (16/18)

Back-to-Backs: 3

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .524 (4th)

Record Prediction: 45-37

The Lakers better hope they get LeBron James back soon, because their next road trip is an absolute gauntlet. They will face the Clippers, the Warriors, the Pacers, the Celtics, and the Sixers before finishing up against the Hawks. Going 1-5 on that road trip makes things extremely difficult for LA, as many contests against playoff and championship contenders are sprinkled in beyond that initial gauntlet. Lonzo Ball is out for awhile, and the majority of the roster has underachieved since James stepped off the floor. Lakers brass will surely be aggressive trying to find upgrades at the deadline, but if they won’t sacrifice cap space next season or an asset they might try and use to acquire Anthony Davis, then it’s hard to see where a major talent upgrade comes from. For now, I am concerned about LA missing the playoffs entirely, even if LeBron comes back tomorrow.

Utah Jazz

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Current Record: 26-22

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 48 (23/15)

Back-to-Backs: 6

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .474 (29th)

Record Prediction: 50-32

With a predicted record of 24-10 after the posting of this article, the Jazz would have the second best ending stretch here of any team, rivaled by only the Golden State Warriors at 25-10. This is primarily for two reasons:

  1. The remaining schedule is absurdly easy
  2. I believe the Jazz will make a move at the trade deadline

While the acquisition of Kyle Korver hasn’t solved every problem the Jazz suffer from (missing healthy point guards and a dynamic forward being two of them) Korver has hit 40 percent of his threes after the Jazz acquired him, possibly the least surprising thing in the NBA all season. Utah’s remaining road schedule of just 15 games features 10 teams on the outside of the playoff picture, and they have (by far) the most home games. If Utah makes good on my second prediction, then they still have an outside shot of cracking 50 wins.

Los Angeles Clippers

Current Record: 25-22

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 35 (17/18)

Back-to-Backs: 7

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .481 (27th)

Record Prediction: 44-38

The Clippers are in for a difficult February but an easy schedule beyond that. Nine of their 11 games next month are on the road, including road games against Toronto, Boston, Indiana, Denver, and Utah. While the Memphis Grizzlies fall from grace was slow and subtle, the Clippers have fallen off at a slower pace. Since December 1st, the Clippers have posted a subpar 10-16 record, likely due to the combination of an injury to Lou Williams and refusal to cut Avery Bradley’s minutes. Marcin Gortat has started the majority of games at center, and while Montrezl Harrell is awesome, I don’t think it will be enough to maintain a strong winning pace. The Clippers are in jeopardy of dropping out of the playoffs, certainly the most vulnerable of any team currently in the running.

San Antonio Spurs

Current Record: 27-21

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 34 (16/18)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .489 (18th)

Record Prediction: 46-36

The Spurs are in a tough place with their upcoming schedule, and for a team that generally fades in the second half, that’s not a good thing. Still, San Antonio has likely banked enough wins to make the playoffs if they drop some extra games. I’m projecting them to go 19-15 in their remaining 34 games because their long road trip this season consists of eight games, including six against teams with above .500 records. The Spurs definitely have the depth to compete for a playoff spot, but as the rotations get shorter and teams use their starters more frequently, I doubt the Spurs win more games than what they are currently on pace to hit (46). DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have been as advertised. Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, Rudy Gay, and Davis Bertans have been better than advertised, but the Spurs are about to go through a very tough February, and things could come crashing down rather quickly.

Houston Rockets

Current Record: 26-20

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 36 (17/19)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .499 (14th)

Record Prediction: 49-33

James Harden has been unbelievable for the entire season, but the rest of the Rockets are unremarkable. With so many injuries to key cogs in the rotation, Harden has been forced to shoulder the entire load for the Rockets. Only two other players in NBA history have matched his averages of 23.5 field goal attempts and 11.7 free throw attempts per game: Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, and Harden’s efficiency is six full percentage points better than either guy. Houston will be aggressive looking for wings on the trade market to bolster their rotation, and with Chris Paul soon to return, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Rockets went on a run here.

Portland Trail Blazers

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Current Record: 29-20

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 33 (14/19)

Back-to-Backs: 4

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .491 (17th)

Record Prediction: 48-34

The Blazers are in a solid spot to claim home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but they will likely need reinforcements to make it happen. As the Jazz and Rockets improve, somebody will have to fall back. The Blazers are one of the biggest candidates for regression, with 19 of their final 33 games on the road and both Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic playing at an exceptionally high level. The Blazers could continue to maintain this pace if they add a dynamic forward or backup point guard to upgrade the rotation. Portland can maintain their top 10 offense without an upgrade, but it would be wise to seek out someone who can add to their bench defense when Al-Farouq Aminu sits.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Current Record: 29-18

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 35 (19/16)

Back-to-Backs: 5

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .557 (1st)

Record Prediction: 50-32

The Thunder are in for a higher proportion of road games initially before spending nine of their final 13 games at home. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and the rest of the squad have play great defense for most of the season, ranking 3rd in the NBA in Defensive Rating, but the last few contests have seen the Thunder allow 115 to Philly, 138 to the Los Angeles Lakers, and 142(!!!) to the Atlanta Hawks. If the defense begins to slip, the Thunder become far less interesting. With an Offensive Rating that places the Thunder 16th in the NBA, it’s difficult to see them winning enough games to displace the teams above them in the standings. Westbrook should return back from efficiency hell at some point, but George is already playing like an MVP. How much growth can OKC truly expect? I bet a move is coming to acquire another shooter to try and elevate the supporting cast around the Thunder duo.

Denver Nuggets

Current Record: 31-14

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 37 (17/20)

Back-to-Backs: 6

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .525 (3rd)

Record Prediction: 53-29

The Nuggets have a difficult strength of schedule in their remaining contests, very clearly one of the most difficult in the NBA. With nine of their final 14 games on the road, tough contests remaining against top East teams, and multiple road trips, the Nuggets are in for a ringer of a closing schedule. Fortunately, Denver has banked enough wins to make due by winning 31 of their first 45 games. The Nuggets won’t be breaking any franchise records in all likelihood, but with the returns of Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap, along with the possible returns of Isaiah Thomas, Michael Porter Jr., and Jarred Vanderbilt, Denver will have enough reinforcements to stock the Iowa Energy G-League team. As long as Denver’s primary contributors stay healthy, the Nuggets are a near lock for homecourt advantage.

Golden State Warriors

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Current Record: 33-14

Games Remaining (Home/Away): 35 (17/18)

Back-to-Backs: 6

Remaining Strength of Schedule: .510 (9th)

Record Prediction: 58-24

The Warriors are currently riding an eight-game winning streak, and while they face a difficult six-game stretch starting Thursday, they are clearly the best team in the NBA and should play as such for the remainder of the season. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are performing at an NBA caliber level, and Klay Thompson just scored 44 points on 20 shots with no free throws against the Lakers last Monday. It was a remarkable display. Add in Draymond Green returning to form and DeMarcus Cousins working his way back, and there’s no reason to doubt the Warriors in any game going forward, so long as they are motivated each night. Maybe not even then.

With these projections, the Western Conference standings would appear as such when the playoffs roll around:

  1. Golden State – 58-24
  2. Denver – 53-29
  3. Utah – 50-32
  4. Oklahoma City – 50-32
  5. Houston – 49-33
  6. Portland – 48-34
  7. San Antonio – 46-36
  8. LA Lakers – 45-37
  9. LA Clippers – 44-38
  10. Sacramento Kings – 40-42

In this scenario, the Nuggets retain the 2 seed, lucking into a match with the San Antonio Spurs as opposed to the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though the Nuggets could have some issues with the Spurs’ personnel that includes a deep bench, Denver’s starters would far surpass what San Antonio could offer. In addition, by earning the 2 seed, Denver would have an opportunity to host an additional playoff series. By avoiding Golden State’s bracket, Denver would likely play an additional team that they have a puncher’s chance against to maybe even make the Western Conference Finals.

Either way, Denver will clearly have to surpass 50 wins to have a shot at home court advantage this year. In order to hit 50, Denver must go 19-18 the rest of the way. That is certainly doable, and with reinforcements returning, I bet Denver clears that bench mark with a few games left in the season.

My, would that be something.